Jilly: What Kind of Story Would Suit Your Home Town?

Crooked Spire, Chesterfield (Peter Tarleton via Wikimedia Commons)

Crooked Spire, Chesterfield
(Peter Tarleton via Wikimedia Commons)

Where did you grow up? Would it make a good setting for a story in a particular genre or sub-genre?

I’ve been living in the past this week. The sale of my mother’s house went through a few days after I got back from San Antonio, and I’ve been in Derbyshire packing up, giving away, and disposing of several lifetimes’ worth of accumulated family stuff. It was more than a trip down memory lane. I don’t think my parents (or their parents) can ever have thrown away a document, photograph or memento, and I found all kinds of old black and white and sepia toned pictures on postcard and thick card. I can just about recognize my father’s mother as a young girl, and my father’s father as a handsome, swashbuckling soldier from the First World War, but there are many other faces from the late 1800s and early 1900s that are a complete mystery.

Clearing the house was as much a mental challenge as a physical one, and I didn’t have any energy left to focus on my WIP, but after a couple of days of speculating about these unknown people from a century ago I discovered that my subconscious had been busy re-shaping Derbyshire as the setting for a series of steampunk stories.

For anyone who’s wondering, steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. It’s usually based in a fantastical quasi-Victorian historical setting, with advanced machines based on steam power. Think dirigibles, carriages driven by mechanical horses, intrepid corset-wearing heroines, eccentric inventors and powerful mages.

Here’s why steampunk would be perfect for Derbyshire:

The White Peak
The lower, Southern end of Derbyshire is built on pale-colored limestone. It’s Jane Austen country – a place for ladies and gentlemen living a genteel life in civilised villages and beautiful stately homes like Chatsworth House, the original Pemberley.

The Dark Peak
The higher, Northern end of the county is built on dark, hard millstone grit. It’s an unforgiving world of rocky skylines and open moorland, isolated farms and spooky properties like North Lees Hall in Hathersage, the model for Charlotte Bronte’s Thornfield Hall. It’s the natural milieu of strong, self-sufficient anti-social types.

Industrial Heritage
Derbyshire was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. In 1771 Richard Arkwright built the world’s first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill in Cromford (it’s now a world heritage site). Others soon followed. Cromford also boasted a canal (built in the 1790s) and a steam railway (1830s). The land was mineral-rich, and there are mines everywhere – coal, lead, tin, fluorspar, and even a semi-precious stone known as Blue John. And a few miles away over the border in South Yorkshire is the city of Sheffield, which was renowned for the production of knives as far back as the fourteenth century. By the mid-1700s the entrepreneurs of Sheffield became expert in the production of steel, and invented Sheffield Plate, a form of silver plating.

Supernatural Elements
There are plenty of ancient sites that could supply a perfect dash of magic to the mix. Arbor Low is a bronze age stone circle in open countryside surrounded by barrows. There’s Mam Tor, an Iron Age Hill Fort also known as the ‘shivering mountain’, and another moorland stone circle known as the Nine Ladies. There’s story potential in the custom of well-dressings to propitiate other-worldly powers and ensure a supply of clean water, and even more in the incredible story of the plague village of Eyam, which could easily be re-imagined as a cover story for an epic good v evil battle to the death. And last but not least, there are many legends about the crooked church spire in my home town, Chesterfield.

I’m not sure exactly how I’d put these elements together, but I’m thinking there should be a gently brought-up heroine from a grand house in the White Peak and a scrappy fighter from a crumbling gothic tower on the moors in the Dark. Or vice versa; not sure which would be more fun. I want a master swordsmith/silversmith from the ancient and legendary city of Sheffield, maybe on the run from bad people who want to use his skills for evil purposes. There must be a genius inventor with lots of fantastic machinery, and scary supernatural stuff on the ancient sites up on the moors, powered by ley lines and stone circles.

I’ve no immediate plans to write any of this, but I suspect that when I finally finish my WIP, I might need a breather and something totally different to work on for a week or two to clear my head and charge my batteries before I dive in to the sequel. I might play with a Derbyshire Steampunk short story or two and see what happens.

What are the defining features of your home town or county? What kind of story would you set there?

23 thoughts on “Jilly: What Kind of Story Would Suit Your Home Town?

  1. It’s so interesting that you blogged about this. I grew up in Historic Frederick, MD, where the now Maryland School for the Deaf used to be Hessian barracks during the Revolutionary War. The plan I have for my stories (of Susannah’s grandparents and their siblings) is that they’ll take place in and around Frederick at the time of the Revolution. Washington DC was a swamp and Baltimore was a small port-town (relatively speaking, of course). Frederick wasn’t much to speak of, but it was there.

    I’d definitely love to read something set in Derbyshire, Jilly! It sounds awesome!

    • Frederick sounds perfect for your revolutionary stories, Justine. I can’t wait to read them. Do you think you fell in love with historicals because you grew up in such an historic area, or is it a lucky coincidence?

      • I fell in love with history because of where I live, in part, but also because my dad is a history buff and he’d talk about biographies or whatever that he was reading. I also read and re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child.

        The first romance I ever read was a historical (given to me by my grandma!). It’s what I grew up reading, I guess.

    • Justine – I could practically call you neighbor. I lived in Westminster for many years. Okay, so it’s an hour away but it’s still ‘close’.

  2. I’ve just been thinking about stories set in familiar locations so this post is interesting timing. I started reading a contemporary story set in Brighton (which is where I live) and I found the setting distracting and annoying – because I was too familiar with it, Brighton pulled me out of the story (for example, I was too busy thinking things like, I wonder if there is really a Regency Crescent, than being immersed in the story).

    On the other hand, my WIP is set in Oxford in the 1950s, which is where I grew up (not the 1950s part, the Oxford part), and I find that okay.

    So, what I’ve concluded from that is that I quite like familiar settings, but not used in an everyday way – so steampunk in Derbyshire would be absolutely perfect.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Rachel. My WIP is a contemporary set in London and the Scottlsh Highlands, and I’ve tried to be specific enough about place to be credible for people who know the area, but not so specific that it’s distracting and irritating.

      My husband worked in Oxford for a while and we had a house in Headington so I know it superficially. It took me a while to get my head around the town and gown dynamics 🙂 The city seems to have a timeless quality all of its own and I can easily imagine it as a 1950s setting.

      • Oh, I went to school in Headington, so know it well. I’m not sure how I would find the town and gown dynamics as an adult – interesting!

    • I think this is the advantage of taking a story set in a familiar town back in time. I’d have to dig up old maps and such to see how much of Frederick was really there in 1776, but there would be some things, like the Hessian barracks, that modern readers would identify as legit. Setting your story in Oxford in the 50s allows you to have enough realism and truth to the town without people dinging you because the pub you said was on the High street isn’t really there.

      Okay, now I want to get a map of colonial Frederick. *sigh* MUST FOCUS ON REGENCY!!

  3. Great post, Jill! Now I want to come visit Derbyshire. And maybe I will through your stories!

    My home town is dead in the middle of the Rust Belt–the part of the US that thrived when manufacturing was big here but has since fallen into blight and disrepair–think Detroit, but on a smaller scale. I don’t think I could set a romance here, but if I ever wanted to do gritty urban realism, this is the place.

  4. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. A river runs through it, there’s an old mill built of fitted stones from 1850 or so that’s by the dam, and up the flowage there’s a line of aspens that marks the edge of the park. It’s perfect for a small-town romantic comedy. And sometimes, I think, a small-town hideous serial killer, depending on my mood.

    England is so terrific for having amazing historical sites close together—you really could have the historical, magical, Victorian, comedy of manners set in a vicinity of one square mile.

    • Four lines, and I feel as though I’m there, Kay (hopefully not with the serial killer). I’m glad I put up this post – it’s fascinating. No wonder our Girls come up with such different stuff 🙂

  5. Derbyshire is so pretty, Jilly. What a lovely place to spend time. And you’re right, what a perfect steampunk setting!! I adore steampunk. If it had been popular when I was a teen I would have been all over it. These days I do little more than don the occasional accessory that nods to the fashion. You could do amazing things with a good-vs-evil steampunk romantic novella. Ebook version, please. 😉

    I rarely think about where I grew up, so it was a bit of a shock to find my hometown at the top of the CNN homepage this morning. Ferguson, Missouri, where apparently thirty years after I left the white cops are still abusing black citizens and visitors. Funny how I thought that as I grew up and moved on to places where that kind of blatant, vicious racism is no longer tolerated that Ferguson must have grown and changed as well. Sadly, no. I can’t imagine setting a story there. I like light, and at least for me it is not a setting for warm, light, comforting stories. It would be more suitable for backstory; a character can move elsewhere and find acceptance, safety, and happiness. Write what you know.

    • Much of Derbyshire is beautiful, Jennifer. Other parts are very industrial, and since the closure of the coal mines struggling almost as much as Jeanne’s hometown. Luckily for me, my mother has moved into the White Peak, which is very pretty and a lovely place for us to visit. I spent a couple of hours this afternoon sketching out a few ideas for a good-v-evil steampunk romantic novella (or several). I really liked what I came up with. I’m definitely tempted to write it for fun after I finish the WIP. If I do, you’ll be the first to know 🙂

      Just checked out the CNN article. Heartbreaking. Very glad you found a new world of light, acceptance, safety and happiness. Good words, those.

  6. Now you’ve gone & done it. My Girls are chattering all over the place about yet another idea. Guess I’ll have to write a little of it as a reminder for when I get this first one finished. At least I know The Girls aren’t comatose after finishing The Program!

    • Oh, good! Make a few notes now and save the rest for later, when you’ve finished the current WIP. That’s my plan, too 🙂

      • Absolutely. I’m carrying around a simple one-subject thin spiral notebook. If I fill it, I’ll move on to another one. I’m also putting in my blog post ideas.

  7. This is so cool! Derbyshire sounds like a wonderful place for a writer to be from, and I can feel your love for the place!

    Some of my favorite books are very rich in their settings, and I feel like the writer had a deep connection (or based their descriptions on a real place that they loved). Particularly, those Dr. Who guys seem fascinated by London (I haven’t seen much Dr. Who, but I know alums from that program have written Sherlock and also The Rivers of London series, which are steeped in setting).

    My home town *is* the setting for a book. It’s a kid’s book about a 19th century school marm who finds love, if I remember right. But I had the distinct feeling that the guy who wrote it had never been there — he created his Broken Bow out of old pictures and historical accounts. Which is fine, but I love my area.

    There’s a wild starkness about the Great Plains, just before they meet the Sandhills area. Usually, in August, the area is golden brown and parched, waiting for the thunderstorms that build up in the West and bring rain and coolness. The weather, thanks to the geography, is super-dramatic, and can go from a lovely 20C/80F to a freezing blizzard in a matter of hours. So, anyone who likes a little pathetic fallacy in their stories has a lot of raw material to choose from (-:.

    Also, it’s a place of stories. Hard luck lives, romance and happiness, striving . . . . And then there’s a touch of eldritch. One family built a cross on a hill that was supposed to attract the attention of Godly UFOs who would rescue people who sheltered there from the End Times. And when I was in high schools, lots of stories went around about cattle mutilations — crazies? aliens? natural freakishness?

    I think there may be a little Broken Bow in everything I write . . . .

  8. Broken Bow – what a great name, Michaeline. It sounds like a place of stories. I really enjoy your writing and I love the idea that Broken Bow is a part of what makes your work so distinctive.

    • LOL, BTW, there is a Broken Bow, Nebraska (where I’m from), a Broken Bow, Oklahoma (which inspired some sort of Star Trek episode, I’m told) and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, from where we sometimes got misdirected junk mail. Derbyshire of the Plains, maybe? LOL. We Americans sometimes get so jealous of the history of a place like the UK or Japan. You trip over a rock, there’s a 1000-year story behind it (or maybe a sword stuck in it). But anyplace with people is going to have a story behind it. People love stories . . . .

  9. Pingback: Jilly: Man-Caves & Brainwaves | Eight Ladies Writing

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